I recently chanced upon a short video that was simultaneously hilarious and disconcerting. The clip, which was on The New York Times website, featured two men who decided to test how difficult it would be to steal a parked and locked bike in Manhattan. The first test involved a white male who “stole” his own planted bike by manually cutting through the bike chain. Although nineteen passersby witnessed the episode, no one said a word or even took a closer look.
The second test was conducted in a more audacious location: directly across from a police station. The same man used a crowbar, and was able in less than two minutes to once again steal his own bike. This time six witnesses allowed the “crime” to go unopposed.
The third experiment was held in Madison Square Park in broad daylight, and this time the offender was the man’s black friend who worked with giant scissors to wrest the bike from its chain. Twenty six witnesses and four minutes later, he was safely cruising with the bike down the crowded Manhattan streets.
For the final test, they went to Union Square during midday. The white man, in an effort to look as criminal as possible, pulled his hood up, donned dark sunglasses, and employed a power tool to “steal” his bike off bars of a busy subway station. Despite police cars driving past and onlookers stopping to watch the noisy show, it took nine minutes and countless witnesses before a patrol of police officers finally told the man to put his weapon down.
The officers listened while the man explained himself and admitted to him that in all their years as New York City police officers they never before caught a bike thief.
Now, while in all honesty, the video itself was downright funny as the men assiduously attempted to attract attention and get caught in the act, the lessons of the clip were far less so.
It is hard to believe that in New York City, with thousands of people walking the streets, no one was willing to stand up to what clearly looked like a bike theft or to even alert the police. In defense of those witnesses, perhaps people were fearful for their safety. After all, these guys looked like criminals and had strong equipment in their hands. Still, the indifference shown by the onlookers was alarming and noteworthy.
In our own lives there are situations where we see something happening that doesn’t look right or that we know, for certain, is wrong. Our children, too, may witness their friends engaging in wrongful activities, even if they seem petty or insignificant.
But what happens when we do observe dishonest behavior? How do we react when our daughters and sons see their friend cheat on an exam and say nothing? What do we say when our kids admit to taking their friend’s snacks without asking or seeing someone else do likewise? When we observe unlawful actions and keep silent, we take part in that offense. When we don’t speak out and demand justice, even for small things, we assume partial liability.
We should not and cannot be afraid to stand up for what’s right, on small and large scales, even if no one else does. It may not be easy, but the fabric of our society depends on it.
To see the The Bike Thief in action, click here.